Sometimes the universe nudges you on the shoulder and says “Pay Attention!”. I had one of those moments recently after seeing this infographic (right) done by Muse Design in Calgary Canada on Pinterest. It got me thinking about color psychology, which in the field of brand design and strategy is a big part of our work. I think about color all the time. I think about it when I’m on the subway, or opening up a (overly) packaged something or other. What’s odd is how people try to pigeonhole one particular color, or a category of color, and say the qualities of that color have X effect on population Y. While that can sometimes be the case, you can point to this simple infographic here and pick apart it’s many flaws. Like the fact that yellow doesn’t always convey a sense of warmth and happiness. It is also said to cause “excitation” or “agitation”, and the main reason yellow was used so pervasively in the 1960′s through 70′s in restaurant brand design was because some believed the color helped move customers through faster and sold more Happy Meals.
There is loads of psychological research done on color psychology, but a cursory online search brings up oodles of mis-, dis- and conflicting bits of information regarding color.
Because color is entirely subjective. This difference isn’t just limited to nation, culture or region, but color can also be perceived differently between 2 people in the same room. Perhaps you’ve tried to pick a paint color for a wall in your home or office with a partner or roommate. Then you’ll have seen color compromise in action. The research suggests that there are groups of people that see colors from different vantage points. Some people are “warm-color dominant” and some are “cool-color dominant”. Warm-color subjects are more “visually oriented and outwardly integrated” while cool-color subjects are “thought to feel detached or split off from the outside world”. Is that universal? Certainly not, these studies are often done on a limited group of individuals in a specific cultural setting. However, once you move to animal studies we start seeing the bigger picture and realize that the warmer colors can indeed create excitation or even violence.
So, then is yellow bad or good?
It depends upon the usage. Are you trying to get people to relax at your spa? Well, maybe a bright yellow or red won’t suffice. But, if you’re a bank or a retail location, maybe you want people in and out, or more amenable to opening their wallets. Red could be the ticket. Just look at Bank of America or Wells Fargo. Seems to be working for them right?
But wait, doesn’t red have a negative connotation in the financial sector?
Indeed, in the United States being in the “red” is not a good thing (although many governments would beg to differ as of late). This is a perfect example where color psychology has trumped a cultural definition leading to a successful brand. Of course, years of brand marketing contributes to that success and assists in overcoming any negative connotations the color may imbue. That’s where brand design and management really comes into play. If you only had red with black and white type, more than likely your brand image would be in the gutter. But cheery or even “solid-looking” photography along with complementary colors and messaging help to defray any possible negative associations in this instance.
Certainly color is subjective, that’s clear, but what’s interesting is that color and the way we see color changes over time. In the most recent Radio Lab show, a podcast I am an immensely popular fan of, the universe served up another hint that I should be thinking (and hence writing) about color. As usual there are several stories on the podcast following one theme, this edition being “color”. One of the most interesting stories was the idea that the language we use to describe color can affect how we actually see color. Part of this has to do with culture and how colors are perceived versus how they’re described. For instance, Homer, the Greek writer of the Oddyssey and the Illiad, used certain colors in his tales repeatedly, but some very common colors do not appear at all. According to William Gladstone a previous Prime Minister of the UK and Homer fanatic, “Black appears 170 times, white appears 100 times, but red clocks in about 13 times, yellow under 10 times, green also under 10 and then realizes something crazy. The color blue…ZERO times.” No blue at all. In fact, all the Greeks appeared to be “color blind”.
Very odd right? Well, it again comes back to language. The way people talk about color influences the way we perceive color. There was no blue in The Oddyssey and Illiad mainly because blue didn’t exist in the same amount that we have in modern times. (Many blue flowers are in fact hybrids humans have created and blue dyes for clothing are very modern by comparison). But what about the sky you say? Well, if you don’t have a word for blue, what would you call the color of the sky? It would be have to be something in your vocabulary. Or you’d have to be told by someone that it is blue. Which is exactly what theoretically happened.
To test this theory linguist and writer Guy Deutscher used the subject his own young daughter. He and his wife decided not to call the color of the sky blue. They DID teach her what the color blue was, they’re not that cruel. But they withheld the concept that the sky is blue. Alma, their daughter, was eventually asked what color the sky was. Guy pointed at the sky and said “What color is that?”. And she wouldn’t give him any answer. She just looked up and was clueless. She couldn’t understand the idea. He kept asking when the sky was only bright blue. Finally she said that the color was “white”. But after a few months she DID say blue, but it still took some time for her to be consistent.
Full disclosure here, and one of the reasons I’m absolutely fascinated by color, I have color deficient vision. I don’t see dark red, green or even browns and dark blues, the same way that 90% of the male population and probably 98% or more of women do (women have the ability to see more colors than men, again, listen to the Radio Lab podcast). Someone with Color Deficiency lacks a sufficient number of red “cones” in the eye and hence cannot see reds and generally darker greens the way most people do. Some people lack blue or yellow cones and do not see blues or yellows as well, and a very rare condition called achromotopsia leaves the person with no color vision at all. I’m not alone in this obviously and oddly I’m not the only “color blind” designer out there. Tibor Kalman, one of the most famous designers of the 20th Century, was color blind and many famous people are color deficient as well; Bill Clinton, Matt Lauer, Paul Newman, Mark Twain, etc. Some designers are even “out” about their color blindness. Israeli designer Yoav Brill created a moving and inspiring video based upon the “Ishihara” color-test patterns that are so familiar to us all now.
Because of this difference the way colors are experienced by others fascinates me. I constantly wonder what my dog sees, or what a bird sees as well as other humans, including clients. According to Tom Cronin, a “visual ecologist”, and Jay Knight, a vision scientist, humans have 3 cones in our eyes, the cells that perceive color. We see roughly 7 colors (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet) in the rainbow. Dogs only have about 2 cones, blue and yellow. So they see about 4 colors, mostly blue, green, and a little yellow. Some birds can see ultraviolet and many more reds than we do. Butterflies see a rainbow that is far more diverse than ours having 5-6 more color receptors, seeing a rainbow with many more colors in the spectrum. But the mantis shrimp has the most complicated color receptor system we know of, having over 16 types of color receptors.
What an amazing array of perception huh? Guess it just goes to show that when working with color we have to keep in mind that there are as many colors in the world as there are people, an animals too. Balancing the needs of a brand with the way color is perceived by the client, the potential audience and indeed by ourselves, the designers, is a challenging thing to do but clearly you can see by our work that we have it down.
Tod Wohlfarth is a Creative Director and Partner at Rockpaperpixel. He splits his time between our NYC and Hudson Valley offices.
For more reading on color psychology, check out these references:
The Effect of Color on Store Design